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Playtime in Reverie

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They can't remember their persona, their true self, and it's worrying, but they have a vague feeling it's happened before.  In the middle of a fight there's no time to slow down, so they shove the quiet terror away and focus on the reassuring weight of the dagger in their hands, swinging at the enemy again and again and again and again.  It's a familiar movement; they could forget everything else, and they would know how to strike.  It's easy, instinctive, requiring no thought at all.  They feel so light on their feet in a way that's not only elegant and graceful but full of relief. Like they had been carrying a great burden until now, and their body was only too thankful to cast it off.

They nearly strike the girl who approaches behind them, their hand only stopping at the last second at her disarming smile--and the handle of her ax, choked high so to block the knife.  "Don't worry, I'll help you remember!  Persona!"  Behind her appears a great figure in billowing black and pink, staring down at them with detached yellow eyes.  They jerk back from both women involuntarily.

"No!"

The voice comes from them, but they haven't spoken.  The brunette facing them looks just as taken aback as they feel.

"Joker, you'll be all right--"

"I mean--you don't need to, Noir.  It's already wearing off.  Focus on the enemy, and destroy them!"

They still haven't said anything.  A giggle reverberates quietly in their chest.

Because I'm Joker, silly.  Not you.

...Huh?

We got ourselves so mixed up with that spell, didn't we?  It's only natural.  I am thou, and thou art I.  The voice is light and calm, but playful too.  It sounds like a trickster's.  A Joker's?

Noir is still wide-eyed, but she takes the confidence as reassurance.  She pulls the brim of her hat down as she nods.  "Yes!  I'll do my best!" she proclaims, and both she and the great lady behind her turn their gazes onto the shadows before them.

Good, the voice says.  Why don't you rest?  I'll call you when you're needed.

What will you call me? they ask.  Who am I?  They'd thought for a second, when Noir had called out, that they were Joker, but--

My, you really are mixed up.  If I'm Joker, then obviously, you would be Alice.  Together, we'll kill all who defy us!

Ah...that's right.  She feels reassured simply having a name.  She's Alice.  She has a purpose, too.  To destroy Joker's enemies.  And nothing else.

You don't need anything else.  It would only weigh you down.  Now, rest.  Joker doesn't need her at the moment, already preparing his own attack against the shadows.

Alice listens.  She is tired, and she lets herself drift from the forefront of Joker's consciousness.  The commotion of the battle fades away.  She hears nothing, sees nothing.

And then she sees blue, and hears a woman in song.

"Strange," says a girl's voice, with a distant note of unease.

"Wh-what?  What are you doing here, Inmate?!" screeches another.

The words wash over Alice without her paying any mind.  They're meant for Joker, after all.  She's only here until he needs her.  Knowing that, and knowing that it's all she needs to know, she nestles her face into the crook of her elbow and curls up on the hard bed of the cell.

"So the game might end in a forfeit...quite unexpected," a third voice says, this one dark and low and amused, and Alice smiles at the joke though it means nothing to her, free of care.

She rests until Joker calls her, and then she is back in the metaverse with him, grasping her dagger tight, dancing as she slashes through the shadows surrounding them.  And it is a dance, weaving between Joker's allies, pulling back from the shadows' pitiful attempts at offense, then thrusting forward with her blade gleaming like a dream.  Now that the confusion from last time is gone, it feels even better.  She is a simple being: give her a weapon and an enemy of Joker, and she will take care of things quite nicely.

"Joker!" a strange signal broadcasts, straight into their mind, making Alice frown.  "Everything okay?  Your readings are...somehow even weirder than usual."

She glances up at the floating orb enveloped by flame, her grip on the dagger lax now that the enemy shadows are gone.  Prometheus, and inside, Oracle.  One of Joker's allies.  "Of course Joker is fine.  Was my performance not magnificent?"  There should be nothing hindering her.  Joker's body is hurt--the wrists are sore, and the ribs and one leg radiate pain, but that feeling is nothing unmanageable.

It's not hers to manage, anyway.  It's Joker's body, and she's Alice.  Which makes it strange that her thoughts tumbled out of his mouth so easily.

"...You sure you're all right, Joker?" a boy questions.

"His ego's doing better than ever, but, uh..."

The two blonds amongst Joker's allies--Skull, Panther--have questionable looks on their faces.  Alice frowns at them, and then feels Joker smoothing his expression back out.

What are you doing, Alice? her other self questions.  Do you want control?  You'll have to know what I know first before you can have that.

What Joker knows?  He doesn't offer more to answer Alice's curiosity, but she can feel that his mind is completely open, to take as she pleases, and she greedily reaches forward and--

The memory slaps her with a splash of cold water across the face.  There is a boot grinding down on her thigh, harder and harder until it feels the bone might break.  Men stand over her, hitting her with their feet, grabbing her with their hands.  She feels sick.  Something is very wrong when she can't even coordinate her limbs to get away or fight back in the memory.  She jolts back from remembering, curls up tight on the rough prison bed in an effort to get away from it.  The blows keep coming.  But that's Joker's memory, not hers.  She's Alice.  She's Alice.

There's a harsh clanging against the cell bars.  "INMATE!!  Snap out of it!"

She screams in response.  She means to say 'no', but she doesn't even manage that when all she can think of is the pain and the fear of more pain.  The baton beating against the cell bars is frightening enough, and then she thinks of how if there weren't bars the rod would be beating against her skin, breaking her skin open with sheer force, breaking bones, bruising organs--

Her screaming starts to die down when she realizes the clanging of metal-on-metal has stopped.  She takes a hesitant breath of the stale prison air, and then a larger one, gulping down oxygen greedily and fighting back tears.

"J-justine...what should we do? This isn't..."

If Justine answers, Alice doesn't hear it.  She's only broken out of her daze of fading panic by a small hand touching gently on the curls of her hair.  It scares her until she hears the light, playful voice that goes with the touch.  The other self.  Joker.  "Give that memory to me again, okay?  You don't want it.  So just forget."

"I trust you realize that you can't keep him this way for long," the other guard beyond the cell door says in a flat tone.  "Staying like this will weaken and damage his psyche."

"More than it already is, you mean?" Joker asks, his question honeyed by laughter.  The anger in that sweet voice comes out only after the last giggle, like a dagger unsheathing.  "I don't want to hear from you two about hurting him."

...Who is Joker keeping?  Alice turns her head up slowly and sees Joker sitting nearby, long blond hair falling straight to curl up gently at the ends.  It's pretty.

It's wrong.  Joker doesn't have blond hair.  Joker has...

"You're still trying to remember," Joker tells her.  "Do you want to remember?  I'll let you.  It'll hurt."

A heavy promise in a light voice.  Alice closes her eyes and shakes her head, relieved when Joker chuckles.

"Then stop worrying about it.  You don't have to remember yet.  Let's just kill all our enemies, so then no one can hurt us!"

That...sounds good.  She only has to worry about following Joker's orders in the Metaverse.  Everything else can be forgotten.  "Come!" he shouts, and then Alice is racing, dagger in hand, ready to ravage their enemies.  When Joker doesn't need her, she is in the Velvet Room, her eyes closed, her ears blocked from whatever words the guards might have.  She doesn't want to remember.  She doesn't want to think.

And yet, despite that, Joker keeps bringing her to the surface of consciousness.  No--she doesn't think Joker's even meaning to do it.  It's as though someone else keeps calling her.

"--ker. Joker."

There's a porthole window across the room that shows the reflection of Joker's physical body: hunched shoulders, thin cheeks, empty eyes, black hair.

Joker has black hair.  Short, and wild with its curls.  Not blond?

She doesn't remember why the detail should be important, so she forgets it when Joker's name is called again and he looks down.  He's not using her right now, so there's no reason for her to have any control; she just watches from behind his eyes.

"Why are you only using Alice?" the smallest thief questions.  Mona.

"Alice is the only persona I need," Joker answers, and Alice swells with pride.  Yes, she is wonderful.

"Her curse magic is pretty powerful, and I know two of the shadow types we've run into are weak to it, but there are plenty that aren't.  Besides, you haven't been recruiting any.  That's not like you."

Curse magic?  She uses her dagger.

"And the exploding teddie bears are a little much for every battle, don't you think...?"

But, she doesn't use--

Is she...not Alice?  Joker's allies should know her, but Mona's description of how she fights doesn't fit.

But Joker said.  He said she was Alice.  If he's Joker, obviously she's Alice.

If?

And if not?

She can't remember what else she might be.  When she tries, there's only cold water.  Cold fear.  She can't breathe she can't scream she's trapped underground no one will hear anyway

It's Joker's memory.  Not hers.  And yet she's the one who has to shut herself off from his body completely, falling back into the Velvet Room to avoid the phantom pain of the grinding boots, the rough yanks on her head, the closed fists beating her.

Of course she's Alice.  She couldn't handle being Joker.

Joker lets her rest longer this time.  This time, she wakes up to a sharp slap.

Alice's instant reaction is to grab the offender and shove him into the nearest wall, her heart pounding with fury and fear and vengeance before she sees it's another one of Joker's allies.  Fox.  He's holding a fan.

"Oracle thought you might still be suffering an ailment," the blue-haired boy explains, his voice calm considering how wide his eyes are.  He tilts his head.  "...I think she may be right, though the harisen ought to have dispelled it."

Joker would be upset if she hurt one of his allies, but it's very, very tempting.  Alice hesitates to let him go, but there are already hands coming between them.  She lets go before Skull and Queen have to resort to actually prying her off, and Fox takes a delicate half-step away, his hands raised in silent apology.

"Perhaps we should stop using the harisen fan," Noir says.  "It is startling."

"Pretty sure I've said that before," Skull grouses at Alice's side.  "'Hey, maybe don't hit people when they're already effed in the head.'"

"I'm not 'effed in the head'," Alice argues.  Joker isn't, anyway.

"Still a little messed up to slap you, man, but don't you think you overreacted?"

She wants to tell Skull that if he wants to see an overreaction she'll sheathe her dagger in the next person who touches Joker, which may be him with how close he's hovering.  Joker apparently doesn't want her saying this: his mouth won't open for the retort, and that feeling of simply being an observer is back.  Her other self is amused, though, rather than annoyed.

Let's save the bloodlust for Shido.  I'd love to return the favor of that beating, wouldn't you?

Oh. That's a lovely thought.  It will be so very satisfying to stab Shido's shadow when she and Joker fight him.  To carve away at that arrogant politician until he is hollowed out at their feet, begging for a mercy she doesn't have.  Spare him?  No.  She'd rather grind his bones under Joker's boots until they break, and stab him until the shadow evaporates.  He deserves to die, so she'll kill him.  For Joker.

It's hard to say how much happiness radiates off of Joker at Alice's bloody fantasy.  While he smooths over the few ruffled feathers she's caused with his allies, she delves into the details of just how to pay back Masayoshi Shido for Joker's pain.  Picturing every enemy shadow as that man only brings her more satisfaction when she ravages them in fights, driving her harder.

And then she is aware of a moment outside a battle.  Oracle is making an announcement.

"This distortion...there's a safe room nearby!"

All well and good--Joker's body is sore--but why would he summon her to the forefront for this?  He doesn't need Alice to take a break.

"Oh, thank god," Skull groans.  "Joker, I need to talk to you for a second."

He makes as if to sling his arm around Joker's shoulders, but even if Alice doesn't understand why Joker has given her control, she knows she has it, and she glowers at Skull to make him stop dead in his tracks and back off.

"Oookay, I get it, no touchy, but this is exactly why we need to talk."

"All right," she says.  She can be reasonable.  She doesn't need to stab anyone yet.  "Talk."

Skull sighs and scuffs his boot against the floor, but he's at least direct when he speaks.  "I know you wanted to push for as many letters as possible today, but we should go."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing, actually," Panther chimes in, stepping up to Joker's other side.  "We got a letter, found another safe room.  That's pretty good, right?  Especially with how crazy these mazes are."

Alice looks around at Joker's allies.  There's some weariness, but nothing a short rest couldn't fix.  "Everyone seems fine."  Is she missing something?  Joker should be in charge for this.  She's only meant to kill the shadows he offers up as her playthings.  She doesn't... manage people.

What's going on here?

Joker is being quiet for some reason.  Sitting back and watching.  Amusement--is her Trickster playing a trick on her?  But there's something else, too, something deeper.

"Yeah, and okay, I know we haven't been in here that long.  But you're kind of off today, Joker.  Seriously off.  And we've still got weeks before the election, we got plenty of time to take down Shido.  No one's gonna mind if you need to rest."

"We want you to rest," the girl adds more firmly.  She reaches to touch Joker's arm, her thumb circling in patterns over the fabric of his coat.  It's...a nice touch, gentle.  It doesn't set Alice itching for her knife.  Both blonds are looking at Joker with worry.

Alice doesn't know what to do with this. With the obvious affection.  She doesn't know how to respond but she doesn't want to pull away, and she doesn't know why Joker isn't taking control again.  Joker's chest is heavy with the weight of his and their feelings.  With having to feel at all.  She focuses on the boy's words.

She does know what Joker wants, at least.

"I want to get to Shido's shadow as soon as possible. I want to kill him."

She knows it's not what Joker would normally say; Joker may be a trickster, but he is concerned with morality, standards.  Rules, though they may be his own, rather than society's.

But he obviously hates Shido, and she thinks they're owed a little blood, so if he'll let her, just this once, why put off on collecting?

The girl's mouth drops open, and the circling motion of her touch stops.  "What?"

The boy looks just as shocked, but he forces a tight smile to his face.  "Is that how you're feeling?  All right."  He shifts to one side. Claps a hand on Joker's shoulder.

And then his hand slides further down as his arm squeezes and he puts Joker into a headlock.  "Yo, Queen!  Callin' it, we're done today!  Oracle, you find that safe room yet?"

"It's right over--"  The orange-haired girl points, but then her arm drops.  "Uh, what are you doing with Joker?"

"Joker ain't feeling too good," Skull announces.  "We all know Joker's been off today, and now he's feeling murder-y, so I say it's time we blow this Palace."  He's already moving toward the safe room, as much as Alice tries to resist being pulled along.

"Joker?"  Queen looks to Alice, and she scowls deeply, still jerking in an effort to slip out of Skull's vise. He is so very fortunate that Joker does not want her cutting up allies.

"Tell me I'm wrong," Alice demands.  "That worthless lowlife hurt Joker--"

"He's doing third person again."

"--I'm going to carve him down to the bone--"

"Oh my."

"Oracle, what kind of ailment is this?"

"Did he even get hit in our last fight?  I didn't see..."

"I've got a guess, but everyone get in the safe room first!"

"We could if he'd quit strugglin'--"

"Allow me," Fox says, and Alice would kick him but he's approaching from a blind spot behind her--she still lashes out with her foot, but with her lack of aim and his quick reflexes, it's little surprise there's no connection until he's grabbing Joker's arms.  The additional restraint enrages her further, but when she feels Panther's whip winding around Joker's wrists, anger blossoms into panic.  They have her restrained, she can't move, Joker needs to take charge right now.

"Noir."

"Right.  Persona!"

She feels the cooling comfort of Noir's Amrita Drop, but all it does is revitalize that awful memory of Joker's, of being restrained, being isolated, being beaten and only released once they knew he was too weak to retaliate--

"He's hyperventilating now--"

"I, I'm sorry, I don't understand--why didn't it work?"

"Just get him in, close the door--"

Joker still isn't stepping in, and Alice gives up fighting, too starved for breath to focus on anything but that.  She soon ends up on one of the couches in the safe room, bracketed by Fox and Skull on either side of her.  Both of them look freaked out, wide-eyed, but they keep a firm hold on each of Joker's arms.

"Oracle, please explain what is wrong with Joker."

"I've...I've only got a theory.  Joker's always been hard to scan, you know.  He's up to a dozen personas now and he's always switching between them, which gives him a unique reading each time.  Half the time I let you guys know he's under confusion or brainwash?  I only know because I already had to watch him do something stupid with my own eyes.  And whatever this is, it's a lot subtler.  Or it was until a minute ago."  Alice can feel Oracle's eyes on her, wary, the navigator curled up in her chair with her knees to her chest.  It makes Alice want to shrink from sight herself.  "That said, he's only had two consistent readings for the last hour.  One belongs to that Alice persona he's been using exclusively."

"Overusing," Mona mutters.  "Did she do something?"

"I haven't done anything wrong!" Alice yells.

There's a long moment of silence, broken only by her panting for air.  Whatever explanation Oracle was making, it's been derailed.

"...Are you Alice, then?" Panther asks cautiously, kneeling on the floor to look up at Alice.  "I guess that would explain why you keep saying 'Joker', but, uh...we kind of.  Need him."

"You think she...what is this, even?  She possessed him?" Queen asks Oracle.  Alice shakes her head furiously.  She wants Joker in control.

The navigator is still staring at her.  "I mean, he gets a good number of his personas by threatening them, so I guess I wouldn't blame one for trying, and if any of the ones he's got could, it'd be Alice.  But... this isn't Alice.  I know her reading.  He's got the other one right now.  It's less coherent.  His behavior was more predictable with the Alice reading, even if it persisted after fights."

"And even though he spammed bomb-bears left and right," Mona chips in.

"But I don't use those," Alice argues.  "I use a knife."

Another pause.

Skull is quick to break it.  "Wait, that makes no sense!  The only knife's been Joker's.  When he wasn't summoning."

"A strange fiction to invent."

"Unless he's not inventing it," Oracle says.  Her stare is sharper now, eyes narrowed.  "Noir, I thought you healed him after he got hit by that Makajam."

The navigator's tone is so hard that Noir looks visibly uneasy, and Alice finally, finally feels Joker reacting, the breaths they take steadying as he takes control.  Of course.  He doesn't want his allies fighting.  "He...he said he was already better," Noir murmurs timidly.  "That I shouldn't waste my energy."

"Mm.  Don't blame Noir for this, I rather like her," Joker says.  At last.  He straightens his back, clasps his hands in his lap, and Alice falls back in relief, ready to retreat to the Velvet Room and let Joker handle everything, when his next words arrest her.  "Blame Joker."

...Joker shouldn't be saying that.

Oracle's attention flicks between Joker and her console, up, down, up, down.  Up.  "This is the Alice reading.  So, Alice, can you explain why Joker thinks he's his own persona?"

"I told him he was, so he'd stop trying to remember," Joker explains easily.  Except.  Oracle called 'him' Alice?  "It might have been dangerous for him to have a breakdown during a battle."

"A breakdown...?" Panther questions, her blue eyes wide with concern.

"Oh, yes.  After all, the worst time to recover from a Forget spell is when you have a memory you really would rather forget."  Joker (Alice?) giggles, crossing his legs at the ankle.  "And he cooperated so nicely!  He had such a wonderful time forgetting, and we were finally having fun in our playtime again.  I still believe my bears and curses are better, but he does make knives look amusing."  He--she--sighs.  "I really wish we could have played like this longer...but I don't want to make the doctor sad."

"Wait, so we've been letting the little murder girl lead us around?" Skull blurts out.

Mona winces.  "I... guess that's the case?  She behaved herself outside of wanting to kill every single shadow we encountered."

"Dude."

"The something he'd rather forget--that's the interrogation room, isn't it?  He never had trouble with the effects of Makajam before."  Queen is pale under her mask.  "We should have... I should have realized..."

"Tricksters lie, Queen.  They'll lie to their friends, even, if they think it'll work out in the end.  He said he was fine, didn't he?  So really, blame him for misjudging. Now, Joker, I hope you're ready to remember everything."

All of Joker's memory.  His memory.  The--  "No."

He can feel Skull's hand tightening on his arm.  It must sound like he's answering himself to everyone else, but Joker doesn't have the presence of mind to feel self-conscious about that.  Not when Alice keeps going, as if he didn't interrupt: "It's going to hurt," and she nearly manages to sound consoling but she's Alice, she wouldn't be Alice if there wasn't that undercurrent of sadistic glee in her voice.  She likes him, but she only protected him to make sure he didn't get broken for good.  Him getting hurt is another story.

"No!  Alice--"

He doesn't remember what happens for the next few minutes.  He's lost remembering back then: the pain, the fear, the haze of the drugs robbing his reason.  It feels like hours have passed when a gentle voice starts to break through, asking him to breathe with her, deep, deep breath, telling him that she knows he's scared but he will be safe, because he's in a safe room.  There are no shadows, no police, no one but his friends.  He's okay.  Take a deep breath.  Nice and slow.  Exhale.  Good.  He's doing great.  Just like that.  Gradually, he's able to refocus to realize it's Ann talking to him, guiding him, and he has to wonder if she's had to do this with Shiho.  They're both on the floor now--nearly everyone's moved to sit on the floor, the only exception being Futaba, who's fidgeting as she stands.  Ryuji's restless, too, one leg beating against the floor as he sits cross-legged.

Morgana cautiously scoots closer.  "Are you okay?" he asks, before shaking his head at himself.  "Well, not okay, but...if we leave now, can you stay calm until we get back home? You need to rest, Joker."

"Yeah.  Yeah."  He has to force that out past the shame rising up now that he has a better grasp on himself.  Alice was right.  If he'd lost it like this in the middle of a fight--that could have been ugly.  Maybe she really had needed to take over, at least for a little while.  But...  "There's one thing I have to do first."

She didn't have to string him or his friends along like that, and that's what gets her put in lockdown in the Velvet Room, the closest thing to timeout for personas.  She pouts at him from behind two sets of bars, both hers and his, but it's just an act; she almost smiles when she asks, "But you did have fun in our playtime, didn't you, Joker?"

He...did, and that's a little disturbing.  She's his strongest persona, and usually that's good, but it's unsettling how she was able to take over.  "You'll be stronger when you're out," he says.  "I'll be stronger too."

"And then we can play together more!" she sing-songs.  Sitting on the cot in her cell, she swings her dainty legs in excitement.  "Good.  You'll use me when you confront that man, won't you?  I want to break him for you.  Oh, but I promise, I'll only break him a little."  She hums.  "No killing.  What an inconvenient rule."

"Hm."  ...That sadistic lust is exactly why he needs a break from her.  If he faced Shido's Shadow right now, would he cause a mental shutdown in the man?  Justify it as revenge for himself?  For Haru, and Futaba?  It's against the moral code of the Phantom Thieves, though.  Not only that--a mental shutdown in Shido would backfire so badly on the group, with them being the first suspects. They need him to confess all he's done.

"Jo-ker~" Alice calls out as he moves to leave his own cell. "If you want to be strong again, you know who you should talk to, right?"

Well.  He doesn't, but he knows who Alice must be suggesting.  She was born from one of his strongest bonds.  It's probably why she took care of him, even if she was a brat about it.

Takemi doesn't specialize in mental health, but she knows more than the average layperson, and she already helped him with the aftermath of the interrogation.  He's not sure he'd be able to reach out to her if she didn't already know the worst of it, but she does, and late in the evening, he finally brings himself to fire off a text.

Guinea Pig: I need help.